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Who Killed the Venus Flytrap?

In the public consciousness, the Venus flytrap is prolific. But in the wild, it's disappearing.

The woman flattened herself down in the tall, sharp grass and thick brush along the tree line. She lay still, silent. Her companions had already been caught, sacks of contraband sealing their fate. But she hoped she hadn't been spotted.

At the height of summer, in this part of North Carolina, the heat can be suffocating. It swells with the humidity, sticks your shirt to your back in seconds. When you lie belly-down on the dry land, every scratch and flicker of grass is a reminder of the life crawling beneath your body: the grasshoppers and mayflies, the ticks and bark lice. She can't move.

Then a voice, with a deceptively warm drawl, calls out from the open field.

"If you don't come out, we'll get the sheriff's department out here," he promises.

"We'll get the dog."

"We'll find you."

She popped up from her hiding spot. Game over. The trio was arrested. Inside their sacks: 800 Venus flytraps.

***

The Venus flytrap is one of the most iconic and well-known plant species in the world. It's a hearty favorite that's easy to propagate indoors, which is why it's found in nurseries, gardens, and shops all over the world and why it can be bought online in an instant. In the public consciousness, it's prolific. But in the wild, it's one of the rarest plants on the planet.

The flytrap only grows wild in one location: a 100-mile range surrounding Wilmington, a city of about 111,000 people, 10 miles from the North Carolina coast. Once a fixture of the local landscape, the flytraps have become increasingly rare in the wild. Exact population numbers are difficult to pin down, but everyone from conservationists, to botanists, to Wilmington locals confirmed the plant is becoming more and more difficult to find in its natural habitat. The species is also listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and is a federal "species of concern."

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission enforcement officer Matt Criscoe searches for Venus flytraps. Photo by Gustavo Ponce

One expert told me there are only three large, viable populations of Venus flytraps left in the wild. Scientists from all over the world come to Wilmington to see and study the plant in its natural habitat. While the extremely diverse flora and fauna that make up North Carolina's ecosystems would certainly survive should the flytrap become extinct in the wild, we'd be losing a truly unique specimen of natural selection, and lobbing off an entire branch of research.

The gradual disappearance of Venus flytraps is the result of a number of factors: habitat loss, a lack of formalized protection, and, increasingly, poaching. Picking Venus flytraps on private land, with the property owner's permission, is not illegal. But stealing plants from private land or conservation areas is, and as of December of last year, it's a felony that could land poachers in prison for more than two years.

Matt Criscoe, a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission enforcement officer, told me the story above of the poachers' arrest, which had taken place two years earlier, as we stood in a similar dry field, poking at the grass in search of flytraps. That was perhaps a more exciting arrest than some, but not atypical in his line of work. An officer with NC Wildlife since 2007, Criscoe put in for a transfer in 2009 to be closer to the ocean and landed in Wilmington. Suddenly, along with checking fishing permits and wrestling rogue alligators, Criscoe had to start apprehending flytrap poachers, too.

Part of Criscoe's job is to catch poachers in the act (usually thanks to tip-offs either from the public or from other poachers), because once they've gotten the plants, it's impossible to determine if they were sourced legally or not.

"It used to be a misdemeanor, which deterred them a little bit because they would get fines," Criscoe told me. "Now, since it's a felony, that's a lot greater charge so I think, hopefully, it will deter a lot more people from doing it. It also increases our safety risks because they're more likely to try to run, to try to fight once they get contacted in the field. We have to be extra careful now."

Criscoe said poachers can sell the plants for 25 cents to a dollar per plant. In one day, a seasoned poacher can dig up 800 plants or more. It's not a huge chunk of change, but it's enough to get someone through the week, he said, especially someone who's struggling to make ends meet. He told me there are dozens of casual poachers in the area—it's a well-known option for making a quick buck—and it doesn't attract any single demographic in particular. The only through line is that a poacher is usually someone in need of a little extra cash.

As for where the poachers sell the plants, that's a long-debated local mystery. There are theories: it could be nearby greenhouses, it could be a foreign buyer on the internet, it could be a middleman who then sells the plants for a higher cost to a third party. Many locals pointed to an emerging market for natural health supplements made from flytrap extract, but even that theory draws more questions than answers. Why would a foreign company buy poached plants by the hundreds from individuals when it's remarkably easy to legally grow flytraps by the thousands from tissue cultures in a greenhouse?

Flytraps can be grown easily indoors, like these potted ones on display at a greenhouse in Supply, North Carolina. Photo by Gustavo Ponce

No one has yet been able to expose where the pipeline leads. It's something local law enforcement is hopeful the harsher felony charge will help suss out—the threat of jail time might make poachers more likely to talk.

"Since this law is new, it's not like we've had years trying to enforce it and going after buyers and sellers and the whole market," said Jason Smith, an assistant district attorney with Pender Country who is currently handling the state's first flytrap felony case. "You've got to know your product just like a drug case: where is it grown, what's the demand for it, what is it used for? We've got to educate ourselves on that."

That case is still pending, so Smith wouldn't reveal any information he's learned from these first charges. We'll have to wait to find out where this black market for tiny, bright green, insect-digesting plants leads. It's clear that if individuals are willing to risk jail time, there's a market somewhere for the poached plants and, right now, poaching is considered the greatest threat to the remaining population of wild flytraps. But that wasn't always the case.

***

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Dionaea muscipula, the Venus flytrap, is a species born of tenacity. It thrives in environments that choke the life out of other plants. It grows stronger when fire razes its surroundings. It evolved one of the most unique feeding systems on the planet to compensate for the deficient soil from which it springs. Dionaea muscipula is a survivor.

The soil in the outer coastal plain of North Carolina is highly acidic and sandy. It's also lacking a lot of the nutrients that plants need to thrive and the hot, dry summers, prone to lightning storms, have historically led to wildfires. This harsh landscape caused the local flora to evolve some unique coping mechanisms.

The Venus flytrap doesn't really eat flies. It gets its "food" the same way all plants do: through photosynthesis. But the flytrap—like the 16 other, less rare carnivorous plants that thrive in the area—needs insects to round out its diet and make up for the lack of nutrients in the soil. Most other carnivorous plants, like pitcher plants, are just shaped in a way that makes it difficult for creatures to escape once they've crawled inside. Only the Venus flytrap (and one aquatic carnivorous plant called a waterwheel) uses a snap trap to catch its prey.

The iconic "trap" section of Dionaea muscipula is actually the plant's leaves—it also has tall flowers and seed pods, far away from the insect-gobbling leaves so that pollinators may do their job freely. Inside the two halves of the leaf, there's a buildup of hydrostatic pressure that causes the trap to open. On the outside are three "trigger hairs," and if one of those hairs is touched (by a fly, grasshopper, frog, twig, raindrop, whatever) an electric impulse is triggered in the base of the hair. The impulse from two or more hairs is enough to release the hydrostatic pressure and snap the trap shut.

Once the trap is shut, the plant releases enzymes that break down compounds like amino acids and proteins, which contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and other useful nutrients that aren't found in the soil. The flytrap absorbs those nutrients and leaves behind the depleted exoskeleton of its meal.

Because the plant grows so low to the ground, it can become dormant if nearby vegetation grows too tall and blocks out the sunlight. But a summer fire clearing out the tall growth and exposing sunlight will cause the flytrap to re-emerge, even if it's been dormant for years. Fires are less common now because we're quicker to put them out, so conservationists do controlled burns where they can to keep the plants healthy.

"All of the plants depend on it. When you don't have fire, you start to see these really thick, overgrown forests," said Angie Carl, the coastal fire and restoration manager for North Carolina Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit that tends nature preserves across the state.

Three of those preserves are home to the last remaining large, healthy wild populations of Venus flytraps in the world, Carl said. The plant's conservation is so precarious at the moment, she asked me not to even name one of the areas, because the poachers haven't discovered it yet.

"I don't want people going there," she said. "We've always been poached, but something's been changing. The last five years have been crazy."

Carl has been, as she puts it, "burn boss" at the Conservancy for 11 years, but only recently has the threat of poaching started to make a serious impact on the survival of the Venus flytrap. If Carl and the Conservancy had their way, the plant would have been listed as endangered years ago and protected even on private land. In her eyes, the best defense would have been to make it illegal to pick or buy any flytraps, other than from greenhouses with a license to grow them from tissue cultures.

"It's been tried multiple, multiple times, but because it grows in areas where people are building, the construction lobby wouldn't—" she hesitated. "It just wouldn't happen."

Now she fears that a felony charge for poaching is simply too little too late.

***

Wilmington is a charming, historic town. The yards in front of 200-year-old homes are shaded by the thick, waxy leaves of magnolia trees. It was the small town backdrop for dreamy-Americana, too-pretty-to-be-real 90s teen dramas like Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill. In the downtown core, the streets are still paved with red bricks and the parking is free.

"We'd be standing where Venus flytraps used to be, and we'd be standing in a golf course."

But it's also a growing hub for southeastern North Carolina. Between 2000 and 2014, the city's population grew 47 percent and total development topped $383 million in the fiscal year 2013-2014, according to the city's website. Like a lot of towns, development took a dip after the recession, but if the abundance of subdivisions and shopping centers that surround the city are any evidence, it's bouncing back nicely, to the detriment of the Venus flytrap.

Because it isn't illegal to remove Venus flytraps from your own property, development companies can plough through fields of the plants if they want to, and that's what most have done, according to James Luken, a botanist at Coastal Carolina University who has studied Venus flytraps and published multiple scientific papers on the plant.

"When I started in 2001, they had a database in South Carolina with locational data for Venus flytraps from the 1970s," Luken told me. "So, we got all those locations, got our GPS, and started going to those places. Of course, we'd go to the spot, we'd be standing where Venus flytraps used to be, and we'd be standing in a golf course or in the middle of a subdivision."

Luken said over the years he's been contacted by inspectors doing environmental assessments for new developments whenever they'd stumble onto flytraps. They'd want to know what the law required when developers find these rare plants on their lands. Luken had to tell them "nothing," and watch as populations of flytraps were bulldozed for condos, retirement homes, and stripmalls.

"The vast majority of Venus flytraps have been extirpated from private lands or they will be within the next five or ten years. It's just inevitable," Luken said. "The only place you'll be able to find them is in these protected preserves."

Photo by Gustavo Ponce

And that makes poaching an even bigger threat. As poachers have run out of private lands to source their product, they've been forced to steal from nature preserves, parks, even educational gardens behind public schools.

Julie Rehder has Venus flytraps in her blood. In the late 1800s, her great-grandmother owned a flower shop that, according to the family's preserved newspaper ads, sold "rare and exotic Venus flytraps." Her late father, Stanley Rehder, had a deep affection for the plants, petitioning local government to improve poaching laws and producing handmade brochures to raise awareness about conservation. He became known as the "Flytrap man," a one-man advocacy group, and even had a custom license plate on his Jeep: FLYTRAP.

"He was really serious because he had seen over his lifetime things like the Carolina parakeet that went extinct or the Carolina panther," Rehder told me over the phone. "He was aware that we could deplete our resources."

Stanley's legacy, a community garden of all the local carnivorous plants, is one of the few smaller healthy populations of flytraps in the area. And that makes it a target for poachers: a few plants go missing every year, Rehder said, and the garden has been completely gutted of its flytraps more than once. Motion-sensor security cameras now hang from trees around the garden, but the area is not regularly monitored, so it's always at risk.

Every year, Rehder and the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust (which has a conservation easement on the land where the garden sits) host the "Flytrap Frolic," an educational event to raise awareness about these rare plants and the need for conservation. Rehder has even dressed up in a homemade flytrap costume to entertain the kids. She said if more people understood how precious the plants are, poaching might start to decrease. But there's a lack of recognition for the plant's rarity, even locally. In a recent visit to the area, I found many people who had spent their entire lives in Wilmington but had no idea how rare the Venus flytrap is.

"It's not a thing local people talk about, but I guess out-of-towners might because it's rare," said Cody van Tienen, a 17-year-old who was hanging out with his friends near the carnivorous plant garden on a recent muggy afternoon. "Honestly, I don't even really think about it that much. It's just another plant."

In the air-conditioned escape of Wilmington's Independence Mall, I found more locals who had never considered the plant's significance.

"I know that they grow here, but I didn't know they only grow here," said one woman.

"I know they're native to this area. I haven't heard of people poaching them," said a disinterested man in the food court.

The only person I met who had more than a hazy awareness of the flytraps' existence—aside from those directly involved in their study or conservation—was a seven-year-old girl visiting the carnivorous plant garden (who was kind enough to then identify all the other plants for me). Overall, Venus flytraps seemed to only vaguely penetrate the public consciousness in Wilmington. Considering the city is home to one of the world's rarest plants, I expected there to be more town pride about the issue. A sign. A mascot. A festival. Something.

"A few years ago one of our interns did a little tri-fold brochure, and we keep that updated," said Connie Nelson, the communications director for the Wilmington and Beaches Visitors Bureau. She also noted a flytrap sculpture in downtown Wilmington, a local brewery named after the plant, and Rehder's Flytrap Frolic. "I don't know. I guess there hasn't been a big push, but subtle pushes, especially with our little brochure."

The lack of public awareness is a problem many of the experts I spoke to cited. Carl, from the nature conservancy, said it's stunning how few people recognize the biodiversity the area boasts.

"People come from all over the world to see our carnivorous plants," she told me. "And the people who live here don't even know about them."

***

The day before I arrived, Officer Criscoe went out into the field to find a Venus flytrap to show me. He went to a few spots where he knew they were growing in the past, but they'd been cleared out. Little divots in the ground are the telltale sign of poachers, who pop the plants out bulb-and-all with long knives, machetes, or lawnmower blades, he said. It took Criscoe two hours in the thick July heat, but he eventually located a small plant on the Green Swamp, one of the Nature Conservancy's preserves.

To get to it, we pull over on the shoulder of the road, cross the muddy ditch via a rotted-out log, and venture into a field bursting with dozens of different plants and insects. He told me to be careful for snakes and, when I dropped to my stomach to inspect the plant up close, to remember to check for ticks.

The author and North Carolina wildlife officer Matt Criscoe venture to find some flytraps. Photo by Gustavo Ponce

As we talked, I spotted another cluster of the plants. Then another. Then two more. We soon realized there were half a dozen of the rare carnivores all around us, hiding in plain view. With each new discovery, Criscoe declared, "that's a good one, there."

It was thrilling to uncover the exotic little plants, especially with the knowledge of their growing rarity. Even Criscoe, who has seen thousands of the plants, seemed to grow more excited with each new find.

The Venus flytrap has fascinated people for generations. It's in our movies, our video games, and in greenhouses and gardens around the globe. And this fascination may be the flytrap's last saving grace.

"If indeed it ever went extinct in its natural habitat, there would always be the potential to reintroduce it from those plants in greenhouses and botanical collections," pointed out Luken. "And they are pretty easy to get re-established. You just take them and plop them down in the right habitat and they'll take off."

Dionaea muscipula, after all, is a survivor.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated Wilmington is 30 miles from the coast. It is 10 miles from the coast.